Normandy Quiet and North Vancouver Noise

Earlier today I was hiking a back trail, high above the Ballantree Trail in West Vancouver. I was high enough up that I almost couldn’t hear the traffic on the Upper Levels highway below. I was reminded of the nearly constant wall of noise and sound that surrounds us at every moment in our days. It’s very sad that genuine quiet is almost impossible to find, and I’m reminded of being told, about thirty years ago, that there is no longer any spot on earth where you won’t eventually see the contrail from an airliner overhead.

That need for quiet, for natural sounds, is one of the big reasons why people choose to move out of the city and into the country. The sound of cars and stereos and leaf-blowers hurts all of us, heightens our stress, and whether consciously or unconsciously makes our lives sadder and less fulfilling. You can’t have peace of mind when you’re surrounded by noise.

That endless wash of noise is a large reason for the number of people who wear earbuds or headphones almost all of the time.  They’re trying to get away from the racket, but are really just masking one set of sounds with another one that’s on the phone or iPod.   Trying to escape urban noise is a positive thing, but they wind up isolating themselves from the world around them, and more importantly from the people around them.  If three hundred people on the SeaBus are all wearing headphones it’s a sign of a pretty significant problem.

(That’s not to say that I don’t like listening to music on the stereo, or even high level amplified music at a concert. The physical experience of a deep bass and the psychic shiver from shrill high tones are an integral part of the rock and roll experience. Power tools and equipment are noisy too, but when you’re using them to create something beautiful you don’t mind that. Also I always wear ear protection.)

This is one of the important reasons why I want us to live in a rural, somewhat isolated, setting. I want to be, to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, on a side road, off the side of a side road. What’s French for “Officer Obie?”

I’ve lived beside highways, and truck routes, and behind slaughterhouses. As I write this I’m listening to slightly drunk neighbours chattering away down the street, growing louder with every glass of wine. I’m tired of listening to other people’s conversations at home, in stores, in restaurants, in parks, and everywhere else that I go.

(A special note about cel phones. As annoying as the ringers are, no matter where that you go, including on forest trails, the real irritatants are the people who won’t hold their phone to their ear, and instead turn on the speaker so that they can shout back and forth with the person on the other end. At least if you can only hear one side of the conversation you can give your imagination a workout. If you’re forced to follow both sides you quickly realize that you just don’t care. Someone needs to explain to these people that the reason why people on TV hold their phones like this isn’t because it’s a good way to use them, or even that it gives better sound quality, it’s because the TV cameras want to pick up both side of the conversation and turning on the speaker is the cheapest way to do that.)

So, a farm on a quiet back road somewhere in Normandy, where can hear the birds and the wind and the thunder rolling in from far over the hills. Maybe even the soughing of the trees. (A word that I learned in high-school which is still a favourite) or the lowing of our cattle, or the brrrping of the chickens.* We already are blessed by the snoring of the dog.

I’m realistic. Living in the country also means trucks and tractors and manure spreaders, and all kinds of heavy equipment that keeps a farming community going. And there are always our own sounds – appliances, hair dryers, water pumps, coffee grinders – but at least we can contain them. What we really want is a whole lot less of the sounds of machinery and motors, and lot more of the sounds of nature and wood and plants around us.

We need a peaceful environment to pamper our peaceful lives.

* In Kentucky one of our neighbours rented a house in the bottom of the holler below a guy who raised fighting cocks. (Yes, that’s still popular down there.) One rooster crowing can be novel and entertaining. Fifty is just plain overwhelming and annoying.


Fiats and Hi-viz Vests

One of the projects over the last couple of weeks has been investigating whether it’s possible or sensible to take our red Fiat Turbo with us to France.   On one hand selling this car just to buy a new one over there seems like a hassle, but on the other hand importing a car between jurisdictions – even from Canada to the US – can run you into unanticipated problems.

Part of the reason for this research is the thought that we might decide to drive across Canada to Halifax or Montreal, load ourselves, the car, and the dog onto a freighter, and travel to Europe by sea.  Passage alone is not much different from flying, and it’s certainly more relaxing and romantic than Air Transat.

At the end of the day (after consultations with the car gurus at Car Talk, and the Driving in France forum at Complete France) I’ve learned a few things.

  • It’s likely that there are mechanical differences between a North American Fiat and European Fiat, especially things related to local safety regulations. Probably the only way to know for sure to to ask Fiat in Canada for a certificat de conformite.  The French government will also have that information, but either way it will cost money.
  • Effective October of this year all drivers in France must carry a hi-viz vest and a reflective triangle in their car. The specifics are very detailed, but also actually fairly sensible and understandable. Imagine how a Canadian government would write this.

Motorists: vest and triangle mandatory from 1 October 2008
Sanctions will be applied from 1 October 2008 against motorists whose vehicle is not equipped with a high visibility safety vest and warning triangle.

From that date, motorists who do not comply with these new obligations will be liable to a class-4 fine (€135 fixed penalty, reduced to €90 if paid within 15 days of issue).

The high visibility safety vest must be worn by a driver before he exits a vehicle immobilised on or by the roadside in response to an emergency.
It must include the “CE” mark and a reference to one of two standards: “EN 471” or “EN 1150”.

Upon leaving the vehicle, the driver must place a warning triangle on the roadside at a distance of at least 30 meters from his vehicle or from the obstacle.  The marking “E 27 R” certifies the conformity of the triangle with existing standards.

One bit of advice though, since we will almost certainly be living in rural area, is that local French mechanics really only know French brands very well.  (Just as small town mechanics in the US tend to only have a good handle on Chevys, Fords, and Chryslers.)   After listening to decades of “Buy American” (or Canadian) rhetoric around cars it’s inspiring to find that the French actually take this to heart in a way that North Americans never will.

Dacia is a super cheap Romanian import sold by Renault. Beyond that it’s Renault, Citroën, and Peugeot all the way.  You need to get well into page two before a Fiat shows up, and even then it’s in a sea of French models.

The other thing that I learned is that in France you have to attach your licence plate with some kind of rivets – screws are not allowed.

Let There be Light!

teletubbyAt 11:36 am last Monday North Vancouver moved from the endless rainy season to bright, warm, sparking sunshine.  Yes, it was that dramatic, and immediately the mood of everyone on the North Shore improved by about 110%.

This week has reminded me that one other thing that I want in notre maison en Normandie is light, lots and lots of light.   Our current home is surrounded on all sides by forest, and is not particularly well oriented on the strata property.  The result is a home that is dark most of the time, especially throughout the rainy season.  Even during the spring weather right now it only really gets direct sunlight for a couple of hours each day.   This year has really driven home how much this affects my mood, and given that depression is already a longstanding condition it really does matter.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I have accomplished more in the last five days than in the previous five weeks. (Admittedly a large part of that reflects time saved in not toweling down muddy dogs and washing rain gear.)

So I want big, bright windows that let in lots and lots of sunlight; windows in every room so that you never find yourself in a dark, depressing corner.

Sometimes number do tell the tale:

Rain days in North Vancouver: 155               
Rain days in Rouen: 127

That’s 28 more days without rain, which looks very appealing right now!

Average Temperatures in Rouen are roughly between  4°C and 18°.  Freezing temperatures are rare.  North Vancouver is actually only slightly cooler.

As Goldilocks would say, not too hot, not too cold!

Vancouver gets about 289 days with sunshine each year, and North Vancouver something less.  Rouen sees about 205 sunny days.  I guess you win some and lose some.

870x489_marc_toesca_en_pop_story_image_uneOn an unrelated​ note, in an effort to get my French comprehension back to something useful (it’s been a long time since high school and university French classes) I’ve been listening to podcasts from Radio France, including the “Pop Story” podcast, a short thing that talks about the history of a single (usually American) pop song.

Pop Story, nouvelle série pour cette année 2018, c’est l’histoire de la chanson et des tubes racontée par Marc Toesca.

Bien avant la naissance de nos classements musicaux, les hit-parades ou charts, ou encore palmarès, faisaient les beaux jours des programmes de radios aux Etats-Unis. Ces “podiums” basés, sur les ventes de disques, et sur les goûts des programmateurs reflètent toujours, au travers des chansons que l’on y retrouve, le style, l’air du temps et l’esprit d’une époque.

Since I know the songs, and know the artists, it’s easy to follow and figure out context.

The problem turns out to be that every episode include lots of references to the years that a record was released, and the number it hit on the charts.

Which is where I discovered that my numerical literacy is pretty much zero in French.  Thankfully that shouldn’t be too hard to relearn!

(Tsk. Couldn’t find the following in French, so it’s Mother Maybelle!)


I’ve Got the Power!

If you’re moving to another country you need to figure out which electronics you will bring.  Here in Canada we like 120v 60hz power with this plug.


France though uses 230v 50hz and these plugs.


What freaks me out is the voltage. For sixty years 120v is “normal” and 240v is reserved for stoves and dryers, and is seriously dangerous! 240v can kill you!

So the questions are:

  1. Will my tech work with 230v?
  2. Will it work with 50hz?
  3. Will an adaptor plug make it work?


What Makes a Home Even Sweeter?

Writing this blog has caused me to spend time thinking about the places where I’ve lived, and the things that made each home special.  To the list above I’ll add a few more things.

tub2A big, deep bathtub.  I don’t know who invented those horrible, shallow, short tubs that are ubiquitous on North America, but I assume it was someone who saw bathing as a necessary evil, and who thought that the less time was spent naked the better.  So my list for our home in Normandy includes a big old claw foot bathtub (or a modern equivalent) that is deep, and long enough for two, and which has taps at the side, not under one person’s shoulder-blades.  Lots of hot water, some good bubble-bath, and a nearby shelf or table for wine, munchies, and books.  A big, bright sunny window. Bliss.

Steinway DA piano. For those of us who play, and those who wish to learn to play.  In my mind I’m assuming that good used pianos are commonplace in Europe, but we’ll see. I can’t think that we’ll be happy without a quality instrument, a few shelves of music, and a good local tuner to keep everything happy. (By extension, a good stereo system is also a must-have item.  Of late I’ve gone back to listening to albums on CD instead of trax off the computer. It really does make a difference.)

hiveBees – Once again my short time in Appalachia comes back to me.   Visits to see Angie and Tony taught me that bees are altogether a good thing. Given the ecological disasters that have befallen so many bee colonies I think we really need to make space for them when we’re living on our own farm.  Plus, honey and honey comb! French bee hives are certainly more stylish than the plain white boxes we see in Canada!

What Makes a Home Sweet Home?

Top floor was ours, above a special effects shop.

Over the years I’ve lived in many places, in two countries, and have pretty much figured out what I like in a home. I’ve owned, rented, and borrowed places and understand that no home is absolutely perfect.

I do know that I like living in the urban core – a warehouse loft off of Bathurst in Toronto for instance (pictured above*) – or in the country – I’ve even had chickens** in the past – but can’t find anything appealing about being in that vast suburban wasteland between the two.  Being forced to rely on a car, shop only in chain outlets, and having neighbours cheek by jowl watching everything that you do is not for me. And strata councils…. don’t get me started.

EPSON DSC picture
What was commonly called “The Kentucky State Flower. The lawn mower came with the place.

Privacy is nice, and being on a big acreage in the country – or down a holler in Kentucky – is often the best way to get that.  That seclusion was best summed up by a friend who lived on top a mountain in Virginia who once said,

You know what I like to do? When there’s a really big summer storm, and the rain is coming down so hard that you can’t see to the road, I like to get nekkid and go outside and dance!

So, rural, farmland, room to grow some vegetables, maybe some chickens for eggs.

A nice old house. Old because they’re better built, have better proportions, and in general are just more comfortable for living.  Stone is good, and Normandy has no shortage of stone houses.  Wooden beams. mancheAt least a few bedrooms, a big kitchen with room for a table, and a living room with a big fireplace or woodstove. (It’s interesting that throughout France and England the practice is to install airtight woodstoves in fireplaces. Why hasn’t that become the norm in Canada?)

Some renovation is fine, especially cosmetic stuff. I can look past bad choices in wallpaper and drapery.  But we definitely want a place that we can just move in to.  I really, really want relatively recent electrical wiring and plumbing, and a good well and septic system.  And a half decent Internet connection, although EU cel phone prices are low enough that we can possibly work around that.

A second building already kitted out as a gîte would be very, very welcome because we do actually want some visitors, or even paying guests.  And some kind of an outbuilding for a workshop or studio as well.

A view that will take our breath away, and enough distance from major roads that we don’t hear traffic.  Good walking trails in every direction.  Fairly close to train lines, and within walking distance of the nearest town.  A good local library.

And, important to me, and a sure sign of the impact that Kentucky had on me, is a proper big porch, with enough room for a proper porch swing.  If there’s one thing that I miss from the South, good porches are it.


* Across the street from a major pig slaughterhouse. Guys that kills pigs for a living coming out to their cars at 4am on their coffee breaks don’t really help your sleep. Behind us was a former car battery recycling plant. Eventually all of the topsoil in the neighborhood was replaced, and we all were blood-tested for lead poisoning.  There’s a daycare there now.

** Chickens are stupid. Real stupid. Bright new coop. clean straw, food, heat lamps.  Chickens are sitting on the fence. In an ice storm. If I hadn’t have come out we would have had chicken-sicles

Baby steps in Normandy

Today we went from just spending hours poring over property listings on the Internet, and actually emailed an agent immobilier in Normandy.

We have just begun our search online and this property is EXACTLY what we’re looking for.
We aren’t quite ready to make an offer on properties; Our plan is to smarten up our house in Vancouver, sell it, buy a property in Normandy while renting in Vancouver until we’re ready to wind up our business here and make the move to France.

Brexit has slightly thrown a spanner in the works, and I’m thinking we should do something before the deadline in 2019, or at least before the extension deadline which is a year or two later

I don’t know if you have the patience to help us make the move from Canada to France. We’re right at the start. We’ve been looking online for two or three months, and you often are the agent for properties we like.

We want a rural property, isolated is good. Some land. Under 200,000 Euros is best. We don’t want an over-improved property (once I see potlights I run), and prefer something that has retained its original traditional, rural, farmhouse or cottage identity. We don’t want a big renovation project, but are able to handle some repairs or updates and of course painting and cosmetics.

Somehow this makes it all feel much more real.  It also makes it feel like we really need to get busy with renovations, repairs, and paint.